Two Omani newspapers have reported that Haitham bin Tariq al-Said is set to take the oath of allegiance as sultan, to succeed his cousin Qaboos bin Said, who died on Friday evening.
- The ruling family must choose a successor within three days of the throne becoming vacant
- If they fail to agree, a council will appoint the person whose name was secretly written by the Sultan in a sealed letter
- A three-day period of mourning has been declared in Oman
There was no official Omani government confirmation of the report posted by Al Watan and Al Roya newspapers on their Twitter accounts.
Western-backed Sultan Qaboos, 79, had ruled the Gulf Arab state since he took over in a bloodless coup in 1970 with the help of Oman’s former colonial power, Britain.
The state-run Oman News Agency announced his death on its official Twitter account late on Friday.
Sultan Qaboos was believed to have been in poor health. He travelled to Belgium for what the court described as a medical check-up last month.
The unmarried Sultan Qaboos had no children and did not publicly name an heir, a tradition among the ruling Al Said dynasty whose history is replete with bloody takeovers.
He was briefly married to a first cousin, but the pair divorced in 1979.
A three-day period of official mourning for the public and private sectors has been declared, state media said.
‘Impossible shoes to fill’
The British-educated, reclusive Sultan Qaboos reformed a nation that was home to only three schools and harsh laws banning electricity, radios, eyeglasses and even umbrellas when he took the throne.
Under his reign, Oman became known as a welcoming tourist destination and a key Middle Eastern interlocutor, helping the US free captives in Iran and Yemen and even hosting visits by Israeli officials while pushing back on their occupation of land Palestinians want for a future state.
“We do not have any conflicts and we do not put fuel on the fire when our opinion does not agree with someone,” Sultan Qaboos told a Kuwaiti newspaper in a rare interview in 2008.
Oman’s longtime willingness to strike its own path frustrated Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, longtime foes of Iran who now dominate the politics of regional Gulf Arab nations. How Oman will respond to pressures both external and internal in a nation Sultan Qaboos absolutely ruled for decades remains in question.
“Maintaining this sort of equidistant type of relationship … is going to be put to the test,” Gary A Grappo, a former US ambassador to Oman, said.
“Whoever that person is is going to have an immensely, immensely difficult job. And overhanging all of that will be the sense that he’s not Qaboos because those are impossible shoes to fill.”
Colourful character among leaders
Sultan Qaboos cut a fashionable figure in a region whose leaders are known for a more austere attire.
His colorful turbans stood out, as did his form-fitting robes with a traditional curved khanjar knife stuck inside, the symbol of Oman.
He occasionally wore a white turban out of his belief that he spiritually led Oman’s Ibadi Muslims, a more liberal offshoot of Islam predating the Sunni-Shiite split.
Sultan Qaboos’s outward-looking worldview could not have contrasted more sharply than that of his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, under whose rule the sultanate more resembled a medieval state.
Slavery was legal, no-one could travel abroad and music was banned. At the time, the country, which is nearly the size of Poland, had only 10 kilometres of paved roads.
Yet Sultan Said let his son Qaboos, born in Salalah on November 18, 1940, travel to study in England.
His time abroad included schooling at Britain’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and training with the Scottish Rifles Regiment in what was then West Germany.
Father deposed in coup
Sultan Qaboos returned to Salalah in 1964 but found himself instead locked away in a palace.
Music cassettes sent to him from friends abroad included secret messages from the British.
London was frustrated with Sultan Said, who had grown increasingly eccentric after surviving an assassination attempt and as Communist rebels kept up their offensive in the sultanate’s Dhofar region.
A July 23, 1970 palace coup ended up with Sultan Said shooting himself in the foot before going into exile in London. Sultan Qaboos took power.
“Yesterday, Oman was in darkness,” Sultan Qaboos said after the coup. “But tomorrow, a new dawn will rise for Oman and its people.”
Sultan Qaboos quickly moved toward modernising the country, building the schools, hospitals and roads his father did not. With the help of Iranian forces under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the British and Jordan, the Sultan beat back the Dhofar rebellion.
Over time, Sultan Qaboos introduced what amounted to a written constitution, created a parliament and granted citizens limited political freedoms.
But the Sultan always had final say.
In a sign of his strong grip, he also served as prime minister and minister of defence, finance and foreign affairs, as well as governor of the sultanate’s central bank.
As he grew older, Sultan Qaboos also grew increasingly reclusive. He is known to have had three major passions — reading, music and yachting.
He “read voraciously”, Mr Grappo said, played the organ and lute. He created a symphony orchestra and opened a royal opera house in Muscat in 2011.
His yacht “Al Said” is among the world’s largest and was frequently seen anchored in Muscat’s mountain-ringed harbour.